Simone Benazzo has joined the Media and Journalism Research Center’s Fellowship Program. The focus of his research project at MJRC is on investigating the active role that critical journalism can play in holding autocratic rulers to account, even under hostile conditions. His research will focus on Central and Southeastern Europe, a region where he will analyze four countries, namely Poland, Hungary, Serbia and Turkey. The research aims to understand how independent media resist autocratization and why some of those independent media succeed in resisting whereas others don’t. 

Simone Benazzo is pursuing a PhD in Political Science at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles where he also works as a teaching assistant. Furthermore, Simone is a contributor and policy analyst covering Central Europe and Western Balkans for various investigative reporting networks such as Balkan Insight, or news media such as Trieste.News, Rai Friuli, or EuroNews. 

Selected Publications:

See below more information about Simone’s project conducted as an MJRC fellow.

Impactful stories. Understanding independent media’s resistance against autocratization in Central- and Southeastern Europe

Scholarship on authoritarianism has long noted that media independence, albeit limited and contested, persists in hybrid regimes (Diamond 2022; Egorov, Guriev & Sonin 2009). As Levitsky and Way point out, “In competitive authoritarian regimes (..) Independent media exist and civic and opposition groups can operate above ground” (2010, 8). 

However, researchers’ attention has been primarily devoted to studying the incumbent’s actions, and his attempt to capture the media and repress critical voices (Enikolopov & Petrova 2015; Prat 2015). In Europe, illiberal rulers in Turkey (Akser & Baybars-Hawks 2012; Coşkun 2020; Finkel 2021) and Hungary (Ágh 2015; Bajomi-Lázár 2013; Bátorfy & Urbán 2020) have poured most resources into this endeavor. 

At the same time, the burgeoning research on democratic resilience (Boese et al. 2021 & Lührmann 2021) and resistance (Tomini et al. 2022; Vanderhill 2020) has identified independent media among the key players in preventing and, ideally, reversing autocratization. 

Both literatures indirectly allude to the active role that critical journalism can play in holding autocratic rulers to account, even under hostile conditions. Yet, this very role has remained largely unexplored.

By investigating the specific context of Central and Southeastern Europe, this research aims to contribute to filling this gap, whose heavy implications for policymaking are self-evident. 

Theoretical framework, research questions and methodology

As a basic theoretical reference, this research understands autocratizing regimes as “informational autocracies” (Guriev & Treisman 2019; 2020), namely regimes where leaders aim first and foremost to persuade their public of their competence, and rely on mass terror and fear only seldom. In such regimes, transparency can turn into an existential threat for the incumbents’ survival, as it is likely to trigger large-scale mobilization and collective action (Christensen & Groshek 2020; Hollyer, Rosendorf & Vreeland 2015). Accordingly, independent media’s impact maximizes during critical junctures, such as mass protests (Pleines and Somfalvy 2022). Moving from the assumption that independent media operate to target “pivotal audiences” (Corduneanu-Hucia & Alexander Hamilton 2022) to fuel resistance to autocratization, the present work intends to provide empirically-sound answers to two research questions:

– How do independent media resist autocratization?

– Why do some independent media succeed in resisting autocratization, whereas others don’t?

At the methodological level, the first question will be addressed through a survey devised to gather independent media and journalists’ experiences and practices of resistance against autocratization. The goal here will be to illuminate this composite empirical reality by providing a grounded systematization. Building on the insight collected in the previous phase, the second question will be answered through two rounds of semi-structured interviews aimed at analyzing four case studies – Serbia, Hungary, Poland and Turkey – in a comparative perspective.